The Cleansing of the Temple

Commentary on Matthew 21:12-17

by Knox Chamblin

THE CLEANSING OF THE TEMPLE. 21:12-17.

I. THE CIRCUMSTANCES.

A. The Time.

Passover is yet nearer. The Cleansing occurs on Monday, the 11th of Nisan, just three days before the preparations for the Passover Meal (see Appendix B.). The Cleansing of Jn 2:13-22 also occurs at Passover; but this is a different event, early in Jesus' ministry (see the arguments in Morris, John, 188-91; Carson, 441).

B. The Crowds.

Given the laws of Deut 16, Passover crowds were predictably huge. Jews streamed into Jerusalem from all over Palestine and from foreign lands as well (Acts 2:5-11 speaks of "Jews from every nation under heaven" gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost, another of the festivals required in Deut 16). Jeremias writes that "the influx of pilgrims at Passover time from all over the world was immense, and amounted to several times the population of Jerusalem" (Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, 84). He estimates that during a Passover in Jesus' day, there might be as many as 150,000 persons in Jerusalem, 25-30,000 of these being inhabitants of the city. Josephus speaks (in doubtless exaggerated terms) of a crowd numbering 2,700,000 (ibid., 78; see further 77-84). This situation helps to explain the size of the crowds that accompanied Jesus from Galilee and into Jerusalem, Mt 19:1-2; 21:8.

C. The Merchandising.

Upon his entry into the temple, Jesus finds persons "buying and selling" (21:12). The scene is the Court of the Gentiles (see the ground plan of Herod's Temple in NBD, 1246). The merchants in question first buy the requisites for sacrifice (animals, wine, oil, salt, etc.) and then sell them to the worshippers (most of whom, having travelled from afar, could not bring their offerings with them). Of the animals, Mt and Mk mention only doves, Jn "cattle, sheep and doves," and Lk none. Given the laws of Deut 16, the number of sacrificial victims for a Passover in Jesus' day "ran into many thousands" (Jeremias, Jerusalem, 57; see ibid., 48-49, 56-57). We can easily imagine how lucrative the business would be for those engaged in buying and selling the required merchandise. (Cf. American commerce at Christmastime.) And there was doubtless the temptation - especially with many worshippers at the merchants' mercy - to charge exorbitant prices for the needed sacrifices (think of the cost of food at a football game or an airport).

D. The Money-changing.

Mt 21:12 speaks also of "the money-changers [kollybistai]." In the Palestine of Jesus' day the circulating currency consisted primarily of Roman money; but all money for the Jewish temple (notably the annual temple tax, 17:24) had to be paid in Tyrian coinage, "since the Tyrian shekel was the closest available equivalent to the old Hebrew shekel" (Lane, Mark, 405) (The reason for this stipulation was therefore not that Roman coins bore "heathen embellishments," such as the emperor's image; for Tyrian coins bore heathen symbols too. See Morris, John, 193-94, following Israel Abrahams.) The task of the kollybistai was to exchange Roman currency for Tyrian. The stipulated surcharge was minimal (1/24th of a shekel); but - or therefore - one might charge an exorbitant rate of exchange for foreign currency, or perhaps "short change" an unsuspecting foreigner. During Passover, money-changing might prove to be as lucrative as merchandising (cf. Morris, John, 193, n. 59).

II. THE LORD OF THE TEMPLE.

A. Jesus' Action.

"Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves" (21:12). The significance of this story lies first in the very fact that Jesus so acts. He has no priestly credentials; he comes from the tribe of Judah, not Levi (1:1-17). Yet he comes boldly into the temple and takes this action without having first consulted or asked permission of the high priest!

B. Jesus' Right.

He is not required to ask permission of anyone. For he himself is Lord of the Temple -

"God with us" (1:23). In 11:10 Jesus quotes Mal 3:1a. Both in applying the verse to John the Baptist and in changing the pronouns (so that the prophecy now reads, "I [Yahweh the Father] will send my messenger ahead of you [Yahweh the Son], who will prepare your way before you"), Jesus implicitly identifies himself as "the Lord [who] will suddenly come to his temple" (Mal 3:1b). The thought becomes explicit in the debate of Mt 12:3-8, where Jesus demonstrates that he is Lord of the Sabbath by declaring that he is greater than the temple. Now, having entered the temple, he speaks of it as "my house" (21:13). (These words, included in the quotation from Isa 56:7, were originally spoken by Yahweh. Here it is most natural to read the statement as Jesus' own - especially given the way Matthew has portrayed Jesus throughout the Gospel. But cf. Jn 2:16, "my Father's house.") As the Lord who ordained the temple in the first place, and who has now "come to his temple," Jesus is perfectly free to do whatever he chooses. We must now seek to understand why he chooses to exercise his authority in this particular way.

III. JESUS' PROTEST AGAINST COMMERCIALISM.

A. His Protest against Corruption.

1. The OT background.

a. Malachi. The Lord was coming, said Malachi, to purify the Levitical priesthood, so that the priests might "bring offerings in righteousness...acceptable to the LORD" (Mal 3:3-4). Cf. the powerful denunciation of priestly corruption in Mal 1-2.

b. Jeremiah. In Mt 21:13, explaining the action of v. 12, Jesus declares: "It is written, 'My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it a 'den of robbers.'" The last phrase is drawn from Jer 7:11, which reads "Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD." LXX translates "den of robbers" spslaion lsst©n, the very phrase used in Mt 21:13. Jer 7:11 comes amid the famous "Temple Sermon." Jeremiah likens the people of Judah to "robbers" because of their manifold sins against God and neighbor (vv. 5-6, 9). The temple, in turn, has become a "robber's cave" - a hideout where bandits may find protection from the authorities. In other words, the people of Judah consider that, however numerous and grave their sins, the temple and its rituals provide them security from Yahweh's judgments and the safety needed for continuing their life of sin (7:10, 4; and J. A. Thompson, Jeremiah, 281).

2. Jesus' twofold attack. Jesus attacks the merchants themselves for their corrupt practices. That there were in fact such practices, has already been indicated. That Jesus directs his attack against them, is strongly indicated by his citing Jer 7. The use of the term "robbers" is most significant in this context, where both sets of people in question handle money. Note that among the sins cataloged in Jer 7 are "oppressing the alien" and "stealing" (vv. 6, 9). "The use of Jer 7:11 shows [Jesus] protesting exorbitant rates of exchange for foreign currency and high prices for sacrifices" (Gundry, 413). Moreover, considering the significance of Malachi for interpreting this event, we can say that Jesus by implication attacks the priesthood that tolerates such corruption in God's House.

B. His Protest against Commerce Itself.

1. The OT background.

a. Isaiah. "It is written, 'My house will be called a house of prayer'" (Mt 21:13a, quoting Isa 56:7. In the opening verses of Isa 56, Yahweh addresses words of comfort and hope to two sorts of people in particular - eunuchs and foreigners. Concerning the latter, Yahweh says: "Let no foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, 'The LORD will surely exclude me from his people'" (v. 3a). "And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him..., these I will bring to my holy mountain [i.e. the temple] and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations" (vv. 6-7). The worship of the temple is hereby opened to members of other races. "The acceptance of foreigners' sacrifices means that, properly speaking, they cease to be foreigners" (Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 315).

b. Zechariah. While Zech is not quoted here, it contributes to the background needed for understanding Jesus' action. The close of Zech reads: "And on that day [the Day of Yahweh] there will no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the LORD Almighty" (14:21b, NIV). But in NIV mg. we find "merchant" in place of "Canaanite." The Hebrew is indeed kena'ani. But in my judgment NIV mg. correctly represents the intended meaning. The term "Canaanite" in some contexts means not a race of people but a class of merchants ("because Canaanites, especially Phoenicians, were traders," BDB 488); cf. Baldwin, TOTC, 180, 208. The present instance of kena'ani is rendered "trader, merchant" in BDB. Another such instance is Prov 31:24, which NIV renders, "She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes." There is also a theological reason for questioning the translation "Canaanite" in Zech 14:21. For the coming Rule of Yahweh, as prophesied by Zechariah, embraces rather than excludes Gentiles (9:10)! (Alternatively, "Canaanite" may be regarded as an epithet for "pagan," like ethnikos in Mt 18:17.)

2. Jesus' purpose. It is not merely the merchants' corruption that Jesus opposes; it is their very presence. This is evident from the juxtaposition of "house of prayer" and "den of robbers" in Mt 21:13. What was meant to be a place of worship has become a house of trade. Cf. Jn 2:16, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!": "the objection is not to their dishonesty, but to their presence" (Morris, John, 195). The merchandising and money-changing take place in the Court of the Gentiles. The Gentiles had few privileges in the temple; this court was as far as they dared to venture. And even that little to which they were entitled was being usurped; merchants were crowding them out of their appointed place of worship.

IV. JESUS' PROTEST AGAINST EXCLUSIVISM.

A. Jesus' Saving Purpose.

Entering Jerusalem in fulfillment of Zech 9, Jesus declares his intention to save Gentiles as well as Jews. This purpose is again visibly demonstrated when he cleanses the temple. The Jewish merchants are driven out in order to provide for the Gentiles what is rightfully theirs - a place to worship Israel's God.

B. Jesus' Fulfillment of Prophecy.

1. Jesus and Isa 56. Now that the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated, it is time for the full realization of this prophecy. By the saving work Jesus has come to accomplish, Gentiles are newly to be welcomed into the House of God and into the Household of Faith (Isa 56:3-7). There is one curious feature in Mt's quotation of Isa 56:7. Whereas the quotation in Mk 11:17 runs "My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations," Mt's version (which otherwise employs Mk for this episode) omits the last three words. Perhaps he does so to allow a starker contrast between "house of prayer" and "den of robbers" (so Gundry, 412). It might also be suggested that, given the strong emphasis on Gentile salvation elsewhere in the Gospel, Matthew considers it sufficient to leave it to be inferred in the present instance. To my mind the principal reason for this omission is that, given the forthcoming judgment upon the Jewish nation - which entails the destruction of the temple itself (Mt 24:2) - there will in fact be no place for Gentile worship (this reason is strengthened if we join Carson, 442, in believing that Mt was written after 70 A.D.) Or at least this house of worship will no longer exist. Jesus' purpose for the Gentile nations will still be realized - not in the temple of Jerusalem but in the Church which he has come to establish. This great transformation concerning the very nature of the temple is already being revealed in Jn 2:19-21, and it is fully manifested in the NT epistles (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19; Eph 2:19-22; 1 Pet 2:4-9).

2. Jesus and Zech 14. As in the Entry Jesus fulfilled Zech 9, here he fulfills Zech 14. The dawn of the Day of the Lord calls for the expulsion of merchants from the temple, Zech 14:21. While this verse is not included in any Evangelist's account of this event (but see Jn 2:16), it does (I believe) help to explain Jesus' action in the temple: (1) the legitimacy of the rendering "merchant" at Zech 14:21, together with that whole chapter's focus on the coming of the Day of Yahweh; (2) the emphasis in Zech 14 (together with Zech 9) on Gentile salvation, a theme presented with special poignancy in this chapter in that the Gentiles whom Yahweh saves are survivors of the nations against whom He has fought! (for judgment against the Gentiles, see 14:2-15; for their salvation, v. 16); (3) the influence of Zech 9-14 as a whole upon Jesus' words and actions during Passion Week (beginning with the Entry); and therefore (4) the influence of these chapters on the Passion Narratives of the Gospels. See further F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Developments of Some Old Testament Themes, 100-114.

V. JESUS' PROTEST AGAINST FAVORITISM. 21:14-16. The material of vv. 14-16 is almost all peculiar to Mt. Attention now shifts from merchants to the blind, the lame, and the children; and to some new OT passages.

A. Jesus Heals the Blind and the Lame. 21:14.

1. The OT background. To understand Jesus' encounter with "the blind and the lame" in the temple, we turn to 2 Sam 5. This chapter records David's conquest of Jerusalem, the Jebusite stronghold. Upon the arrival of David and his army, the Jebusites contemptuously boast, "You will not get in here; even the blind and the lame can ward you off" (v. 6). Then we read in v. 8: "On that day, David said, 'Anyone who conquers the Jebusites will have to use the water shaft to reach those 'lame and blind' who are David's enemies.' That is why they say, 'The "blind and lame" will not enter the palace.'" This (NIV's) rendering of bayit by "palace" should be corrected to "house" (so RSV). The "house" in question is in all probability not the king's palace but the sanctuary - i.e. (in time) the temple. Thus H. P. Smith, Samuel, 287-88; LXX significantly renders oikon kyriou, "the house of the Lord."

2. Jesus' purpose. Jesus' healing the blind and the lame demonstrates, yet again, that he is indeed "the One who was to come" (cf. 11:2-6, especially 5). His healing them on this occasion is especially appropriate. For he has just entered the capital as the Messiah, the Servant-King. And he is now in the temple. The present miracles demonstrate Jesus' reversal of 2 Sam 5:8, or - to be more precise - his eradication of the false application of that saying. "David was using 'the lame and the blind' as a figurative epithet for the Jebusites. By healing the blind and the lame right within the Temple, Jesus denies the Jews' false deduction from David's statement" (Gundry, 413) - namely, that the blind and lame should be barred from the temple. Jesus again shows that he is the champion of the helpless and the oppressed, of "the least" and "the poor in spirit."

B. Jesus Receives the Acclaim of Children.

"But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple area, 'Hosanna to the Son of David,' they were indignant. 'Do you hear what the children are saying?' they asked him. 'Yes,' replied Jesus, 'have you never read, "From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise"'" (vv. 15-16).

1. The children's exclamation. Their words, "Hosanna to the Son of David," echo, and are apparently to be understood in the same way as, the crowd's words in v. 9. On this showing, they are a genuine expression of acclaim but an inadequate confession of faith (cf. comments on v. 9). But a final decision about meaning, must await an examination of v. 16.

2. The OT quotation. In responding to the protestors, Jesus quotes from Ps 8:2 (the Greek of 21:16b is identical to the LXX). Ps 8:1b-2 reads (in NIV), "You have set your glory above the heavens. From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger." For "praise," NIV mg. has "strength" in accord with the original Hebrew 'oz, "strength, might." Mt 21:16, following LXX, has ainon, "praise." The portion that Jesus quotes is meaningful for two reasons: (1) Children are among those most likely to appreciate the wonders of God's creation. "The child utterly and completely surrenders to the impression produced by things which are great and glorious, and does so in an unaffected and direct manner" (Artur Weiser, Psalms, 141). (2) God has ordained that very utterance of praise, as his chosen means of conquering his adversaries (note the cluster of terms in v. 2b, "enemies ...foe and avenger"). Reverting to the original Hebrew ('oz), Weiser translates, "By the mouth of babes and infants thou hast founded a bulwark to defy thy adversaries" (p. 139; similarly BDB). It is a case of God's choosing the weak things of the world to shame the strong (1 Cor 1:27), of perfecting his strength through weakness (2 Cor 12:9-10).

3. Jesus' intention.

a. Jesus and his enemies. Here in the temple, as in the Psalm, children's shouts of praise are offered in the presence of God's enemies, they being in this case the chief priests and teachers of the law. Moreover, as in the Psalm, the utterance of praise - "Hosanna to the Son of David" - is the very means God has appointed for opposing the enemies. To be sure, the children's words fall short of being an adequate confession of faith in Jesus. But their words are nonetheless true - Matthew himself acclaims Jesus as Son of David! Furthermore, the children affirm something about Jesus which surpasses - which indeed diametrically opposes - what the chief priests and the teachers of the law believe about him. The shouts of the children serve as a bulwark against, and an indictment of, the religious leaders' unbelief.

b. Jesus and the children. As in 19:13-15, Jesus shows his tender regard for the young. The children in the temple are identified as paides, i.e. as children older than paidia (the term used in 19:13-14), and older also than the nspioi ("infants") and thslazontes ("sucklings") of Ps 8:2. That paides is used here is not surprising, for these children are old enough to visit the temple and shout their praises. Still the older children (paides) qualify, together with the blind and the lame, as those who might readily be overlooked or despised in the counsels of the mighty. Jesus respects those whom others neglect or ostracize.

c. Jesus and God. The praise of Ps 8 was directed toward Yahweh: "O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" (vv. 1, 9, an inclusio). The praise offered by the children in the temple is likewise ordained by Yahweh. But now their praise is directed to Jesus. By implication, Jesus is identified with Yahweh. (That the children are unaware of what they are doing, does not lessen the reality of what is happening.)

VI. THE CONCLUSION. 21:17.

A. Jesus' Departure.

"And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night." The Greek verb behind "left" is kataleip©, "leave behind." The Markan parallel (11:19) uses ekporeuomai, "to go out"; cf. Lk 21:37, exerchomai, "go out." Moreover, Matthew's choice of verb allows him to use a direct object: "he left them behind." The immediate context makes it plain that the pronoun denotes "the chief priests and the teachers of the law" (v. 15), the ones to whom Jesus addresses the question of v. 16. We conclude that the verb of v. 17 signals Jesus' abandonment of his antagonists. Significantly, kataleip© is the very verb used in 16:4; in both instances Jesus' departure is an act of judgment upon his adversaries, the Jewish religious leadership in Jerusalem (cf. Gundry, 415; and the further commentary on Mt 21-23).

B. Jesus' Lodgings.

Because of the crowded conditions in Jerusalem during the major festivals, especially Passover, many pilgrims had to find lodgings outside the city. Jesus' needs were met in Bethany, in the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha (Jn 12:1-2).